Travel debit and credit cards

Our Favorite Travel Debit and Credit Cards

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You Shall Know Our Velocity isn’t a traditional travel story.

In the book, Dave Eggers’ first novel, two friends embark on an unplanned, one-week, around-the-world trip. They give away thousands of dollars and try to overcome the loss of a childhood friend.

Velocity reads even faster than On the Road. You feel yourself speeding around the globe along with the main characters.

The book is only a dozen years old, but the characters’ use of travelers’ checks already feels dated. I’ve been traveling extensively since 2009 and have never used (or even seen) a traveler’s check.

With the right debit and credit cards, you can travel the world racking up airline miles without being gouged by fees.

This post contains a lot of links and references. Don’t try to read everything today, especially if you’re just getting started. The clunky card names and points-related jargon can overwhelming. Read this post for an overview, then bookmark it for later reference.

Take it slow. You don’t have to figure out everything all at once.

What to Look For

Before we get started, you should know that the card with the best rewards also have the highest interest rates. Do not get a travel credit card unless you will pay it off every month. If you don’t, you’ll face interest rates of 20% or more. Even the best point offer won’t be profitable if you’re paying 20% interest to use them.

With that out of the way, let’s continue.

What should you look for in a good travel credit card? The cards may change, so you should be equipped to evaluate new offers.

Here’s what to look for:

  • No foreign transaction fees: You want to use your card while traveling without being punished for it with extra fees.
  • Sign up bonuses: This is the easiest way to earn points. The lowest offer I would consider is 25,000 points. You should look for 30,000-60,000 points and always be ready to pounce on the rare 100,000 point offer.
  • Point multipliers: Some cards offer double or triple points on spending in some categories, like travel. If you’re already spending money on travel, this is a great bonus.
  • Point redemption and transfer bonuses: What is the redemption value of your points? Can you earn extra points by transferring yours between programs, e.g. from your credit card’s points to an airline’s miles?

Most importantly, look for rewards that you will use. If you aren’t a traveler, you should have a cash back card. If you’re loyal to an airline or hotel chain, get a card that will earn you those points. The last step in the process is redeeming your points. Make sure that you will be able to easily redeem your points when the time comes either directly (like Southwest’s point system), through a booking portal (Chase), by transferring points (Chase), or via account credits (Barclaycard, Capital One).

For more on redeeming points, refer to the Rookie’s Guide to Award Travel by The Points Guy.

Next, let’s talk specifics.

The Best Travel Credit Card

Most travelers should choose the Chase Sapphire Reserve. The Reserve is as close as you’ll get to a consensus favorite. The Wirecutter, Extra Pack of Peanuts, and The Points Guy all recommend the Reserve too.

Why does everyone love the Reserve?

Pretty great, right? I’m already spoiled by the lounge access, and I’ve only used it once.

The sign up bonus is competitive (even if it’s down from 100k when the card was new), the travel credits are a nice bonus, triple points are better than almost any other card, and the 50% bonus is helpful for booking travel directly through Chase.

The usual redemption is worth 1¢/point, so 50,000 points are worth $500 towards travel. The Reserve gives you 1.5¢/point, so 50,000 points are worth $750.

You can still do better by transferring your Chase Ultimate Rewards points to a Chase partner airline where you might get 3-5¢/point. However, the convenience of booking through Chase is nice, especially with the 50% bonus.

If this offer sounds too good to be true, it is. The downside to the Reserve is that it costs $450 per year. Aside from the Reserve and the American Express Platinum (more on this below), most of the best cards are less than $100 per year. You can usually have the fee waived in the first year too. Not with the Reserve.

For example, Chase’s previous best card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, costs $95/year, which can be waived for the first year.

The Reserve costs $355 more but includes the $300 in travel credit, which the Preferred does not. The Reserve also offers 3x points on travel and dining, while the Preferred only offers 2x. If you’re spending money on travel, the Reserve is better than the Preferred, despite the initial cost.

If you can’t afford the up front cost or aren’t sure you’ll get your money’s worth, start with one of the cards below. If you get deeper into points and miles, you can always get the Reserve later.

The Next Best Travel Credit Cards

Most airlines and hotel chains have an associated card. If you’re loyal to one, get the associated card even if the sign up bonus isn’t great. Why? Because you’ll use it.

Below are a few more picks that may be a better fit for you. I’ll admit to having had all of these cards at one point.

If you earn your Chase sign up bonus and are ready to “churn” and sign up for another program, you can use this list.

American Express Platinum: The American Express Platinum is the other card currently in my wallet. The Platinum is similar to the Reserve, though it costs $550/year. What are you getting for that price?
* 60,000 point sign up bonus
* $200 in Uber credits
* $200 in airline fee credits
* $100 for a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck membership
* Access to both Priority Pass Select and AmEx Centurion lounges
* Gold status with Starwood and Hilton hotels

Chase Sapphire Preferred: Similar but not as good as the Reserve. However, it’s much cheaper, especially in the first year.

The last two cards make point redemption easy. Just make a travel purchase with your card, then redeem your points for a statement credit. The credit is like getting a refund. You don’t have to do anything extra or know how or where to redeem your points.

Venture from Capital One
* 40,000 point sign up bonus
* 2x points on all purchases
* $59/year, waived the first year

Barclaycard Arrival Plus
* 50,000 point sign up bonus
* 2x points on all purchases
* 5% miles back towards your next redemption every time you redeem points
* $89/year, waived the first year

Bonus: The Best Travel Debit Card

Having the right debit card will save you money in foreign transaction, ATM, and currency exchange fees.

First, like with credit cards, make sure your debit (ATM) card has no foreign transaction fees.

Second, always use your card to withdraw local currency from an ATM. Never exchange money in your home or destination country, either at the airport or any other money exchanger. Those are businesses making money off of the premium that they charge over the true exchange rate. Withdrawing money at an ATM means you’ll get a fair exchange rate without any added costs.

This last recommendation is for Americans only.

The best travel debit card for Americans is the Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking Account. Don’t mind the long name or mention of an investment account. Charles Schwab is a brokerage firm, so they use the checking account to also open a brokerage account for you. You don’t need to ever use it or carry a balance there. Consider it an extra line in your account that you can ignore.

The Schwab card is your best option because it doesn’t have any foreign transaction fees and reimburses you for all ATM fees, at home or abroad. Schwab doesn’t have its own ATMs, so, at the end of the month, you’ll get a refund for any ATM fees that you’ve been charged.

Using this card makes getting money from an ATM free and easy, regardless of where you are. Thanks, Chuck!

For More on Points

If you’re just getting started with points, go slow. Start with one card. Don’t go down every rabbit hole of research. Just earning points is a great start. You can always get more sophisticated later.

If you do, I recommend The Points Guy (TPG) who posts regularly about the best card offers and other travel news. Reddit’s r/churning is also a good read. Bookmark r/churning’s wiki and slowly work your way through all of that reading.

Disclaimer:
This website does not provide financial advice. This page is intended for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, financial advice. You should consult your own financial advisors before engaging in any transactions.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony Chan March 8, 2014 at 7:39 pm

Being Canadian, I’m not eligible for the above cards. What I use is a TD Infinite Rewards Visa card. I earn 3 points for every dollar I purchase. If I book flights through Expedia I can earn 9 points in every dollar. It comes with a $100 dollar sign up bonus. There’s no blackout or expiry dates. Not too shabby. I’ve calculated I should have enough for three free flights on my RTW trip.

Reply

chauzer April 30, 2014 at 7:54 pm

Credit cards:
– chase sapphire preferred (no foreign transaction fees, 2% points on travel and restaurants, 7% dividend on points, great point transfer program)
– barclays arrival mastercard (no foreign transaction fees, 2% points on all purchases)

Debit card/ATM:
– charles Schwab (no ATM fees worldwide, no foreign transaction fees, no account fees, no minimum balance)

Reply

Fred Perrotta May 1, 2014 at 8:58 pm

Thanks, chauzer. I recently got the Chase Sapphire Preferred and will be adding it after I’ve had a chance to vet it. I’ve heard good things about the Barclays MC. That may be my next card.

Reply

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